During the Enlightenment there was reordering of society based on reason with an emphasis on the empirical scientific method, which began a progressive societal journey. This is the much agreed upon trend that the Enlightenment inspired, however it can be argued that it produced in society something very different than that, an argument which Foucault alludes to and outlines in his essay Panopticism.
While discussing the juridico-politcal implications of a panoptic society, he suggests that with the Enlightenment’s demarcation and spreading of basic human liberties in the political spectrum came “the disciplines”. These disciplines are the “counter-laws”, for while juridico-political laws guide a person to align themselves with a certain ideal to so as to encourage the best possible society, the disciplines deal with the controlling and limiting of those who do not fit the ideal, the “abnormal” and the “other”. This is the darker side of an Enlightened society, but inevitable considering the fact that an ideal society can only exist with an archetype for an ideal member of society. Everyone must be characterized, classified and organized in a hierarchy and those who do not fit the ideal must be dealt with in some way.
The way that the disciplines can go unnoticed is an example of the genius and the danger of the panoptic juridico-political system. A citizen can go through life enjoying the privileges and liberties given to a free individual, while never quite realizing these “universal” rights are given to an individual based on their adherence to a rather strict code of being in society. The rise of the “enlightened despotic” rulers in Europe in the second half of the 1700s shows the fascinating dichotomy in the adoption of an ideal and free society. Socially and economically, things were better for the average citizen who lived under an enlightened political regime. For example, an aspect of Catherine the Great of Russia’s leadership involved the dissolving of the powerful and engrained institution of serfdom. In addition, Enlightenment political theorists such as John Locke inspired the Declaration of Independence which helped birth the United States of America, backed by the ideals of liberty, democracy, and religious tolerance.
These are all things that are good for the common, normal man of three hundred years ago, however, without realizing it, that man was adopted into a system of control and discipline. In fact, his whole family was, including his many descendants, including us. It is important to note that the reordering of a political system of society comes with many different implications, some of which may not be clear right away and may not be reversible. At this point it is hard to imagine that the framework upon which modern societies are built could be removed or reordered, and it is difficult to imagine a system in which no brand of people are oppressed. It is hard to imagine a time when there will ever not be another brand of people who will always seek power, and with that the power to oppress. The Enlightenment moved us forward in many ways, but it was not a great equalizer nor was it the end of oppression, simply a reordering.